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Chelsey Foster, Mary Jo Coiro, Ph.D., Jason Parcover, Ph.D., Gina Magyar-Russell, Ph.D.

The Relation of Religiousness and Spirituality to Mental Health Outcomes in College Athletes

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Religiousness and spirituality are related yet distinct constructs, which among college students show different patterns of change over time and different associations with self-identified gender and aspects of the college environment (Bowman & Small, 2010; Bryant, 2007; Bryant et al., 2003; Buchko, 2004; Lee, 2002; Muller & Dennis, 2007; Nadal et al., 2018; Stoppa & Lefkowitz, 2010). Greater religiousness and spirituality are related to a variety of mental health outcomes for college students, such as lower levels of depression, anxiety, drinking behaviors, and eating disorders (Sanders et al., 2015; Yun et al., 2019), and higher levels of self-esteem, self-approval, identity maturity, and physical activity (Burke et al., 2014; Nadal et al., 2018; Sanders et al., 2015),. An explanation for these associations might be that religiousness and spirituality can be used as a coping mechanism ( Pargament & Raiya, 2007; Yun et al., 2019), or as protective mechanisms that decrease the likelihood of engaging in risky behaviors (Burke et al., 2014; Nadal et al., 2018).

College athletes face a unique set of stressors due to their commitment to both academic and athletic pursuits. However, they demonstrate similar or lower overall levels of psychological symptoms compared to non-athletes (Armstrong & Oomen-Early, 2009; Proctor & Boan-Lenzo, 2010; Wolanin et al., 2016). The limited research on religiousness and spirituality in college athletes in relation to mental health outcomes indicates that higher levels of religiousness and spirituality are associated with lower levels of depression (Storch et al., 2002), lower alcohol consumption, and fewer sexual partners (Moore et al., 2013; Seitz et al., 2014) and with aspects of athletic performance (Dillon & Tait, 2000; Ridnour & Hammermeister, 2008).

Mindfulness, which has been examined as both a trait and as a state (Kabat-Zinn, 1994), appears to be more strongly related to spirituality than religiousness in adults ( Lazaridou & Pentaris, 2016) and college students ( Mathad et al., 2019). However, it is difficult to clearly understand the relationships between religiousness, spirituality, and mindfulness due to the overlapping nature of religiousness and spirituality, as well as the inconsistency of how those concepts are measured in the literature (Palitsky & Kaplan, 2021). Mindfulness interventions have been shown to reduce symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress among college students in general (Bamber & Schneider, 2016; Vidic et al., 2017) and college athletes specifically (Glass et al., 2019; Mistretta et al., 2017). Research has not examined whether the benefits of such interventions are stronger among students who are more religious or spiritual.       

The current study seeks to contribute to this area of research by examining the relation of religiousness and spirituality with college athletes’ mental health, as well as whether religiousness and spirituality moderate the effectiveness of a brief mindfulness-based intervention. Participants are 64 NCAA Division I college athletes who completed ratings of mindfulness, depression, anxiety and stress prior to and immediately after the three-week intervention, and at four-week follow-up.


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